The misdirection in the ‘elites’ discourse.
There are respectable ways of knowing how things are run and who the beneficiaries are. Over-indulged misdirection about ‘elites’ isn’t one of them.
If you’re looking for good answers to the big old questions around “who runs things around here, and who do they aim to serve?”, then Anthony Downs’ work on ‘rational ignorance’, or Mancur Olson’s on productivity and the logic of collective action from the 1960s and ’70s is a great place to start.
For one thing, they have the advantage of having been a good predictor of what was going to happen. For another, they’re not partisan grifting — they have uncomfortable messages for all of the political poles.
Yet, instead of discussing this, we’re locked in a silly discourse around different elites that include dark forces including Gary Lineker and Carol Vorderman, and any Oxbridge types who haven’t convinced themselves that they have prole-whispering talents.
This discourse is not quite a conspiracy theory, but it’s not far off being one either.
It’s cheerfully pushed by people who would otherwise disdain crude tales of plots and schemes. Our newspapers are relentless promoters of all of this stuff about woke elites — particularly from academics who shouldn’t have the excuse of not knowing about Public Choice Theory.
There’s not much evidence of excessive demand for it from the people who buy news media or even those who advertise in it, and, strangely, the people who promote this stuff keep saying other people are “out of touch.” The tap rooms of Worksop are hardly buzzing with resentment about what A.C. Grayling, Matthew d’Ancona, or Stephen Bush have to say on Mastodon.
Public Choice Theory, on the other hand, reveals a more convincing set of forces that could look a bit like elites in a certain light. They’re different from the ones that sell crude-populist newspapers though.
Mancur Olson is exactly the right place to start when you want to know which groups of people have the capacity for effective collective action. They’re not personalised, or consciously malevolent. Unlike conspiracy theories, they’re not concerted groups. Instead, they’re dynamic and chaotic.
If I were angry with these forces, I don’t know who I’d need to tweet rudely. They exist in the way that market forces do — shaped by their incentives, and acting in a way that can be predicted and even managed. Looking at it another way, like the shadowy forces of fevered imaginations, these groups do operate in very sophisticated and intelligent ways — but this is not because the people involved are necessarily sophisticated or intelligent (often quite the reverse).
Instead, their effectiveness is a product of cognitive diversity, which is a terrifically good problem solver. It generates strategies and alliances that work.
These social groups also do all of the things that conspiracy theories claim that consciously malevolent forces are capable of. They throw up smokescreens and misdirections. They’re a lot more interesting than anything that notoriously anti-establishment non-elite tribunes such as [checks notes] The Daily Telegraph or [really checks notes again] The Spectator writes about every single day. Without fail.
So here’s my favourite conspiracy theory:
The ownership of newspapers has benefits that are much larger than the scant profits that can be made from running a newspaper. The business of owning media often has more to do with beating regulators than beating competitors or market forces [pdf]. Newspaper owners would like to keep it that way.
A public choice theorist would point out (as Olson does) that deliberation about the allocations of public goods is, itself, a public good, so having most public discourse hosted in a privatised public sphere will result in widespread injustice.
The parts of the media that still pay for opinion are publishing this stuff in almost epidemic proportions, swallowing up so much of the public bandwidth that could be filled by a more diverse set of ideas.
This is part of a collectively unconscious bit of misdirection that is designed to stop us from hearing about a useful way of understanding how things work. It is promoted, following an act of semi-conscious political problem-solving by not-particularly-clever people who work for a media that is no longer a socially useful place for hosting a national discourse.
They want you worried by easy-to-digest polarising nonsense about elites when you could be reading Anthony Downs or Mancur Olson instead.
Whoops! I appear to have accidentally stumbled upon the concept of ideology!